Thursday, 4 March 2010

Dr. James Hansen in Melbourne

''I don't intend to be telling Australia what they should do for their energy source except that they can't continue to burn coal without screwing everybody..."

''And exporting coal, and increasing exports of coal, is almost equivalent to being a drug dealer to the world.''

James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies

source: the Sydney Morning Herald


  1. Hansen wavers between saying we can't use coal, to we can't allow the emissions from coal to enter the atmosphere.

    When the Los Angeles airshed was so polluted people decided something actually had to be done, they chose to fit pollution controls to the cars rather than abandon them. How the debate about what to do about climate change evolved into assuming CCS can't be used is beyond me.

    For instance: Greenpeace touts solar thermal as the baseload technology of the future, and dumps on carbon capture and storage as impossibly expensive, but their own documents show they admit that the DOE and the IPCC think coal power with CCS would cost between 6 - 10 cents kWhr. Whereas the designer of the Greenpeace example solar thermal project, i.e. Andasol 1 in Spain stated for publication that electricity from that station will cost 27 EU cents or 36 US cents kWhr. I've debated with environmentalists who point to this Greenpeace document as if it is the last word that will explain to me that solar power is viable and CCS is not.

    This debate is mind boggling. All the solar thermal touts I've run across try to avoid even discussing the cost of this power while they assert that nuclear or coal with CCS is just too expensive.

    I support CCS, even though my preference is nuclear, because I think there is some doubt if the nuclear phobia present in so many countries can be overcome to the extent that nuclear can just take over and supply most of the power to civilization.

    When I wrote Dr. Hansen to mention that the largest CCS station I had heard of as of then was the Schwarze Pumpe in Germany and it could put out more electricity in a year than the largest solar thermal station then existing yet CCS opponents were getting away with trumpeting that CCS didn't exist while solar thermal was here, he expressed surprise.

    Stephen Chu wrote this, in Science 25 Sept 2009:

    "There are many hurdles to making CCS a reality, but none appear insurmountable. The DOE goal is to suppor R&D, as well as pilot CCS projects so that widespread deployment of CCS can begin in 8 to 10 years. This is an aggressive goal, but the climate problem compels us to act with fierce urgency".

    I think Hansen should be more careful in his choice of words.

  2. Thanks for your comment David.

    I’ve never gotten the impression Hanson is wavering. He has called for a moratorium on new coal station construction without dedicated CCS deployed with the plant from initial construction. Since this is not feasible at the moment (technically and/or economically depending on specific location), his other calls for action seem to be related / fall-back positions.

    The technical, economic and political realities of any energy project are important and must be considered by the relevant stakeholders; but I fear the pitfalls of marginalization if Hansen’s words are picked over too closely at the expense of his overarching message: The world must quickly take action to reduce global concentrations of gasses currently threatening our climate.

    Many countries around the world are tapping nuclear energy as part of a broader clean-air energy policy.

    Hanson is encouraging Australia to progres more aggressive action than is currently the case.

  3. There is a great difference between proclaiming that burning coal is going to screw everybody and exporting it is the same thing as being the drug dealer to the world, and saying that the CO2 emissions of coal use have to stop.

    I heard Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the Blair and Brown governments, speak once saying if the best engine he had been recently shown was brought into the hall where he was speaking and fired up, it would improve the quality of the air there. It sounded outlandish to me, but there is no doubt that the emissions of internal combustion engines have been cleaned up by an amazing amount over the decades, with the notable exception of CO2, of course. It is conceivable, in my mind at least, that this type of thing will prove to be possible and that fossil fuels may well continue to be used even as the composition of Earth's atmosphere is stabilized and restored.

    People are telling each other that it is a joke to think that CCS will prove to be possible as they call for all research to stop, just as anti nuclear people call for the end of nuclear power.

    Yet I would ask everyone, what do they think our descendants are going to do with the planet they inherit from us? If they find themselves horrified that we left them an atmosphere with 550 ppm or 1000 ppm, or even more CO2, with by then truly civilization threatening consequences becoming apparent, does anyone really believe they will not try to remove CO2 from the atmosphere in a last ditch attempt to save themselves?

  4. I agree with your conclusions and support CCS R&D (but I'm not confident since Australia's investment is an order of magnitude below a failed American effort). However, in the absence of a widely deployable technology what is the world to do? In today's real-world context, with - in my opinion - some pretty significant actions required very soon, I can't see how coal can be anything but the bad guy when it comes to electricity production.

    If we agree that emissions resulting from global energy use must be significantly reduced, then the technologies responsible for current emissions must be displaced with clean air technologies to an acceptable schedule. The new technologies must be safe, economic, reliable, sustainable, but most of all, available today.

    A number of technologies being tossed about (including coal with CCS, a number of renewables and even Gen IV nuclear) do not yet fit that particular bill.